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  • Writer's pictureTedd Long

The Toledo Story

The rich history of the Toledo area is best told by dividing the narrative into eight distinct eras to highlight the major transformations that have shaped our region. From the prehistoric black swamp era to the rebirth of Toledo as a postindustrial city anchoring the revitalization of Northwest Ohio, the Toledo story is a fascinating journey.

Visual Courtesy of Undark
The Great Black Swamp (visual courtesy of Undark)

The Black Swamp Era: The flat, crop-covered land we know today as Northwest Ohio was once a thick, dense quagmire that served as an impassable impediment to development. Known as the Great Black Swamp, this glacially fed wetland, formed over 10,000 years ago, covered an estimated 1,500 square miles of northwest Ohio and extreme northeast Indiana. Made up of wide-ranging swamps and marshes, with some higher, drier ground sprinkled in between, the muddy footprint of the Great Black Swamp occupied what was formerly the southwestern part of Lake Maumee, a precursor to Lake Erie.

Make no mistake, the people who settled the Toledo region lived and died in the shadow of the Great Black Swamp. Gradually, it was drained and tamed in the second half of the 19th century by generations of gritty farmers but its 10,000-year legacy played a key role in the early chapters of the Toledo story.

Early Inhabitants and White Settlement: While timeless tales of the rapid expansion of the United States have been passed down through generations, the development of the Toledo region was a different story. The Great Black Swamp was an impenetrable barrier for white settlement. As a result, our region was Ohio’s final frontier.

Smithsonian drawing of ancient defensive earthwork along the banks of the Maumee at Fassett Street.

Native peoples lived along the rivers and lakefront of what is now Northwest Ohio before European explorers arrived. As early as 1615, Etienne Brule, a French-Canadian interpreter and scout for French explorer Samuel de Champlain, observed people from the Erie tribe living at the mouth of the Maumee River. In fact, a marker at Fassett and Miami on the east bank of the Maumee River in East Toledo honors an ancient Indian defensive earthwork that overlooked a narrow bend in the river.

Native tribes and both French and English traders inhabited our region throughout the 1700s, but the conclusion of the Revolutionary War shaped the destiny of our region’s native inhabitants. At the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the southernmost portion of Quebec was ceded to the United States as the Northwest Territory. The Northwest Territory would become Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota. To assert U.S. authority over the native tribes inhabiting the newly acquired region, President George Washington ordered the U.S. army into the Northwest Territory in 1790. The ensuing conflict became known as the Northwest Indian War in which the United States faced the Western Confederation, a loose coalition of Great Lakes tribes including the Shawnee, Miami, Wyandot, and others who were receiving support from British forces still holding on to strongholds in the Northwest Territory.

In 1791, forces led by the Miami chief Little Turtle conquered the American militia troops at what is now Fort Recovery, Ohio (135 miles southeast of Toledo) in an early morning ambush known as St. Clair’s Defeat, named after the commanding American General Arthur St. Clair. After dismissing St. Clair, Washington put General “Mad Anthony” Wayne in charge of U.S. forces in the Northwest Territory. In 1794, Wayne’s Legion of the United States defeated the Western Confederation at the battle of Fallen Timbers, in what is now Maumee, Ohio. The defeated tribes signed the Treaty of Greenville in 1795, which ceded most of the Ohio territory to the United States, setting the stage for Ohio’s statehood in 1803.

Because settlers were unable to penetrate the Great Black Swamp, members of Wayne’s Legion were some of the first white Americans to see and describe how the indigenous people of this region lived. William Clark, who would go on to fame as an explorer with Meriwether Lewis, described the view looking out from Fort Defiance:

“…the margins of which as far as the eye can see are covered with the most luxuriant growths of corn, interspersed with small log cabins around all of which you observe their well cultivated gardens, affording almost every species of horticulture, vegetables in the greatest abundance.”
"Charge of the Dragoons at Fallen Timbers," painted by R. T. Zogbaum, ca. 1895

While Wayne’s victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers concluded the Northwest Indian War, a new confederacy of tribes led by the Shawnee chief Tecumseh joined forces with the British to wage war again in Northwest Ohio less than 20 years later during the War of 1812. Fort Meigs, a strategic American fortification along the banks of the Maumee in Perrysburg, Ohio withstood two fierce sieges from British and Indian forces in the spring and summer of 1813 and became a turning point in the war for the victorious American forces.

The United States' victory in the War of 1812 ended British support of the native confederations, allowing Americans to push the tribes westward and fully settle Ohio without further opposition.

Rising from the Swamp: While other areas of Ohio developed rapidly after the Treaty of Ghent ended the War of 1812, the Toledo region lagged far behind. The arrival of settlers was slowed by the difficulty of travelling across the Great Black Swamp. Early 19th century travelers were lucky to be able to move one mile per day as they drudged through the mud and water along the military road from Lower Sandusky (modern-day Fremont, Ohio) to Perrysburg. Pioneers described mud and water that was, at times, waist high or as local frontiersman John Hunt described it, “…nearly up to our Saddle Skirts.” One early surveyor described the swamp as, “Water! Water! Water! [T]all timber! [D]eep water! Not a blade of grass growing or a bird to be seen.

The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 allowed pioneers from the northeast to avoid the swamp and reach Northwest Ohio and Michigan Territory by water through Albany and Buffalo and across Lake Erie. Many arrived at the mouth of Swan Creek via the Maumee to either settle in Northwest Ohio or gather supplies for continued travel west. Early settlers in the area included traders, farmers, wood cutters, tradesmen and land speculators. Because of the swampy conditions, newly arrived settlers dubbed the area we now know as downtown Toledo as “Frog Town.”

Although a Cincinnati syndicate purchased a tract at the mouth of Swan Creek and named it Port Lawrence in 1817, their investment collapsed, and the village had to be re-platted in 1832. Directly to the north, another syndicate founded the town of Vistula in 1833. During the planning phase for Ohio’s new canals, many fledgling towns along the banks of the Maumee River competed to be the northern terminus of the canal, knowing it would provide a significant lift to their local economy. The villages of Port Lawrence and Vistula merged in 1833 to better compete against their upriver rivals. The leaders of this newly-united settlement chose the name Toledo and incorporated as part of Monroe County, Michigan Territory.

1834 map of Port Lawrence and Vistula.

As Michigan was seeking admission to the Union in 1835, a heated Ohio-Michigan boundary dispute developed when Ohio officials, building the canals, were ready to extend them northward. As it became clear that present-day Toledo would be the best choice for the northern end of the canal, both Ohio and Michigan Territory claimed jurisdiction over a 468-square-mile region along the border, now known as the Toledo Strip. The leaders of newly-established Toledo believed regional success depended on the canals and they urged the Governor of Ohio to exercise jurisdiction over the disputed strip. After some taunting and saber-rattling, the “Toledo War” ended when the Michigan Territory agreed to negotiate when they recognized that a significant surplus in the United States Treasury was about to be distributed to the states, but not to territorial governments. In the end, the Michigan Territory accepted the Upper Peninsula in exchange for the Toledo Strip as a compromise to being admitted to the Union as the 26th state. The City of Toledo was officially incorporated in the state of Ohio in 1837.

The much-anticipated Miami-Erie Canal was opened by 1845 and Toledo became a growing port along Lake Erie with connections to Cincinnati and the Ohio River. Connections to communities to the west were made possible via the Wabash and Erie Canal. Although canals would bring significant commerce to Toledo, the community still struggled in its early years. In fact, because it was surrounded by the Great Black Swamp, the area earned the nickname “Graveyard of the Midwest” because the swampy conditions brought about periodic epidemics of cholera, malaria, typhoid fever, and other deadly diseases. Finally, in 1850, the state of Ohio began an organized effort to manage the Great Black Swamp with ditches deep enough to drain the swamp water into Lake Erie via the Maumee and Portage Rivers.

Erie and Kalamazoo Railroad

By the 1850s, canals were losing business to the quicker, more reliable railroads. The first railroad to operate west of the Allegheny Mountains was Toledo's "Erie and Kalamazoo." Begun in 1832, the line was completed by 1836. Its rails were made of oak topped with thin iron strips. Horses pulled small rail cars the 30 miles between Toledo and Adrian, Michigan. In July 1837, a steam locomotive replaced the horses. From the Erie and Kalamazoo's simple beginning, Toledo's exceptional rail system developed. Multiple railroad companies operated from Toledo's terminal and port facilities, making it a major rail center in the United States. Numerous passenger trains, and thousands of rail cars carrying agricultural products, raw materials, and manufactured goods from all over the country, arrived and departed daily. With the development of Toledo as a railroad center, prosperity continued during the Civil War.

in 1865, Toledo became the home to David R. Locke, a newspaperman and one of the most influential humorists of the era. Through his alter-ego: Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby, Locke skewered Northern Copperheads for the Confederacy, secession and racism. According to Samuel Clemons, Locke’s drinking buddy and companion on the lecture circuit, Nasby “promoted liberal causes by seeming to oppose them.”

Industrialization and Rapid Growth: After the Civil War, as railroads continued to develop as the key form of transportation, Toledo commerce began to expand and diversify beyond Great Lakes grain to include industrial development. The pamphlet, “A Presentation of Causes Tending to Fix the Position of the Future Great City of the World in the Central Plain of North America” was written by Jesup W. Scott, a local leader and substantial landowner. It described Scott’s theory that the center of the world’s commerce was moving westward to the interior of the continent and Toledo would become a major center of commerce. By 1880, Toledo was one of the largest cities in Ohio and had begun to develop an extensive infrastructure from its thriving economy.

The Nasby Building, 1892.

By 1888, Toledo’s transformation to an industrial center was moving forward rapidly. Fueled by its status as a great railroad center—Toledo was second only to Chicago in the number of railroads entering the city—a number of local industries began to emerge, including carriage makers, furniture crafters, wheel makers, breweries, foundries, and medical device manufacturers. Edward Drummond Libbey’s New England Glass Company was recruited by local business leaders to move to Toledo. By 1892 the company changed its name to the Libbey Glass Company and Toledo began its march toward becoming the “Glass City.”

Toledo developed at a brisk pace during the second half of the 19th century and experienced a substantial influx in immigrants who were attracted to the area by the available jobs and the city's easy accessibility by rail and water. The city’s population swelled from 13,768 in 1860 to 131,822 by the turn of the century, making it briefly the third-largest city in the state, surpassing Columbus, and the 26th-largest city in the country. This growth ushered in urbanization and the dawn of a downtown building boom at the close of the century. Toledo’s first skyscraper, the nine-story Nasby Building, was constructed on Madison Avenue in 1892 and a streetcar system powered by Water Street Station, a power plant opened along the Maumee river in 1896, shuttled workers to plentiful jobs all over the city.

The 30,000 square-foot Water Street Station opened as one of the largest electric power plants in the Midwest. Working conditions were harsh. Plant operators worked 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, with just one day off per month. These kinds of conditions in the area’s factories led Toledo’s first Progressive Era Mayor, Samuel M. “Golden Rule” Jones, to institute the 8-hour workday and paid vacations for city employees as an example for business and industry to follow.

The industrial growth of this area at the turn of the 20th century was phenomenal. Many companies opened operations in East Toledo, including the National Milling Company, Toledo Furnace (which later became Interlake Iron), Trotter Lumber Company, Craig Shipbuilding (which became Toledo Shipbuilding), and May Coal Company. East Toledo was flourishing with activity. The National Malleable Casting Company went from 200 men when it opened in 1890 to over 1,600 by 1915. Many of the workers attracted to Toledo’s iron works were of Hungarian descent. Once here, they sent money home to have more family members shipped over to work in the mills, furnaces, and foundries of East Toledo. The lure of good paying jobs and humble homes also brought Italian, Slovak, Czech, German, Polish, Bulgarian, Greek, Hispanic and African American families. Toledo embodied the idea of America’s melting pot in the early 1900s.

In 1909, John Willys moved his Overland automobile factory from Indianapolis to Toledo and helped fuel a business boom that resulted in Toledo becoming a global automotive manufacturing and parts production center.

The 1920s marked a zenith in Toledo’s rich history in terms of growth and development. Toledo had grown into a major hub in the nation's transportation system. Its fifteen miles of riverfront serviced over 4,000 freighters each year. It was second only to Detroit as an automobile center. Its largest employer, Willys Overland, produced more cars than any other U.S. manufacturer except Ford. Toledo’s glass companies profited from the ownership of key patents on several glass production advances. While Toledo’s glass companies produced tons of glass of their own, the control of these patents meant every piece of glass made in America by any manufacturer returned profits to Toledo. You could say Toledo owned the 1920s. In fact, some say the ‘Roaring Twenties’ began in Toledo in 1919 with the heavyweight championship fight between Dempsey and Willard, the world’s first million-dollar sporting event.

Great Depression and World War II: While the 1920s were certainly a peak in the history of Toledo, the 1930s were the exact opposite. The Great Depression took hold of Toledo with an iron grip. Because of its dependence on manufacturing, Toledo suffered unemployment rates as high as 80% during the economic crisis. Some companies and shops were forced to close and most had to cut back workers. Several large scale federally-funded Works Progress Administration projects were undertaken to employ citizens, including the reptile house at the Toledo Zoo, the Glass Bowl at the University of Toledo, Main Library, several area parks buildings, and Macomber High School. However, by the time the United States entered World War II, Toledo's industries had already begun to focus on wartime production and unemployment concerns began to fade.

During the war, Toledo was designated a strategic inland defense area because of its defense plants and transportation facilities. Willys manufactured more than 350,000 Jeeps during the war. With so many area men going off to fight in Europe and the Pacific, women began going to work by the thousands. In 1942, new day nurseries were opened in Toledo in order to meet the demands of mothers working in the factories.

Suburbanization: At the end of World War II, the Toledo Blade hired a nationally known industrial designer with Toledo roots, Norman Bel Geddes, to design a master plan for the city’s urban future. Called “Toledo Tomorrow,” the giant model, drawing national attention, was exhibited at the Toledo Zoo. Unfortunately, after World War II, Toledo’s suburbs grew briskly leading to the spread of suburban shopping centers.

The Colony (Monroe and Central c. 1934)

Throughout the 1950s, the shift to the suburbs continued. In response, downtown leaders constructed pedestrian malls on Adams Street and Madison Avenue during the summer months. The experiment lasted two years, attracting national attention. However, it failed to stop the flight to the new suburban shopping centers. By the late 1960s, the construction of expressways helped suburban communities surrounding Toledo blossom further as the downtown core began to look like a city that had seen much better days.

The Rust Belt: As with the Great Depression era, the Rust Belt era was not kind to Toledo. The name "rust belt" came to describe how many industries in this region relied on outdated factories and technology. The term gained wide use in the 1970s as the once-dominant industrial region of the Midwest endured a dark period of economic decline as manufacturers, responding to global competition, relocated to other parts of the United States or Mexico. Factories closed, unemployment rose, and many working families left the region. By the close of the 20th century, Toledo had lost most of its Fortune 500 companies.

21st Century Resurgence: As the 20th century closed, many local business leaders saw opportunity in a revitalized downtown Toledo. A shift in the receding tide of business was welcomed when Owens Corning made a significant commitment to Toledo by building a new headquarters campus on the Middle Grounds, just south of the mouth of Swan Creek, where the Toledo story began with Port Lawrence.

A new $40 million, 10,300-seat home of Toledo’s minor league baseball team, the Mud Hens, opened downtown with assistance from the City of Toledo and Lucas County. Toledoans flocked to the new venue and set league attendance records as downtown Toledo began to experience a renaissance.

Veterans Glass City Skyway, a cable-stayed bridge on I-280 crossing the Maumee River, was completed. At the time of construction, it was the Ohio Department of Transportation's biggest single construction project in history.

A $105 million, 8,000-seat multipurpose arena, home of Toledo’s minor league hockey team, the Walleye, soon opened in downtown Toledo. The arena, part of a complex that included the SeaGate Convention Centre and the recently constructed baseball stadium, helped continue the momentum of a downtown resurgence by creating an increase in local business in the surrounding area.

The region’s largest health care system, ProMedica, purchased the idled Water Street Station power plant and renovated the 121-year old building to house 800 employees and serve as an anchor to its new downtown headquarters campus. After playing a transformative role in the development of Toledo in both the 19th and 20th centuries, Water Street Station was renewed to play a part in the next chapter of Toledo’s history in the 21st century.

Today, as Toledo’s economy is expanding from automotive products to high tech solutions focusing on glass, solar energy and the service sector, the region has plenty to offer. The area’s future is bright with a thriving cultural scene anchored by a world-renowned art museum, a fierce commitment to education, with nearly 3 dozen colleges and universities within a 60-mile radius, a receptive business environment making the area a preferred place for innovation and diverse talent, and a unique transportation footprint featuring a powerful convergence of highways, railways and waterways. As to what the future will bring Toledo in the next 180 years, only time will tell. But one thing is certain, the bold, broad-minded people of this region will continue to make it an epicenter for commerce and intellectual achievement.


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